Neon Canyon in Coyote Gulch, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah
The topo maps don’t label Neon Canyon, and maybe that’s its saving grace. This is a place for well-conditioned and self-assured hikers. The nearly all-day venture using Fence Canyon for access has river crossings and is longer but more scenic than the alternative route. The most direct route, for experienced route finders only, is a beeline across a gigantic expanse of nothingness where only the occasional cairn marks the way.
We took the straight-in route with our bearings set on a distant rock formation called Round Dome. With some trepidation, we forged ahead for several hours, keeping the landmark in sight, which becomes more difficult the closer you get to Neon Canyon. We followed the directions we had researched and printed before the trip, and they led us directly to our goal. Be forewarned—a compass or GPS is mandatory to find your vehicle on the return hike if you use this direct route.
Either route leads you to Neon Canyon, and this tributary of the Escalante River slowly evolves into a glowing chasm of heightened color saturation. Eventually, you’ll reach the sizeable sandstone alcove, filled with magical light, called the Golden Cathedral.
The overhanging ceiling of this treasure reveals round openings that cast beams of sunlight, creating sensational effects of luminosity and shadow on the water-stained orange sandstone. A large reflection pool sits below the dome. Technical rock climbers often rappel through the openings in the ceiling. We were there on a day with only hikers, giving us plenty of time to photograph from numerous angles.
Walking barefoot across the damp sand, one feels connected with the elements in the back of the cavern. Simplifying my focus, a meditative section of the dark, moody pool roused my attention. Here, indirect light interacted with the depths of the water and the cavern walls. An apparition of light existed in the moment. Then the sun angle slowly shifted, and, just as silently, the magic vanished.
Get detailed information about hiking to Neon Canyon from the Escalante Visitor Center before you go. This is a challenging hike and should only be attempted with proper gear and supplies. Tell someone where you’re going and when you’re expected to return.
[Excerpt from “Southwest Serenity,” published in Outdoor Photographer magazine, 2019 Special Issue.]